Why Places Matter

Why Places MatterTo assert that places matter and that people actually care about the places where they live sounds to me like a statement of the bleeding obvious. But what if Age UK, Civic Voice, the Design Council, English Heritage, Keep Britain Tidy and Sustrans all say it at once? Might we take a bit more notice? Giving local people a say in the planning and shaping of their own neighbourhoods has become pretty popular in the last couple of decades and not only  has broad cross party support, is increasingly rooted in legislation, north and south (across regions, countries and continents). But how do people and place contribute to growing the local economy, cutting crime and improving public health? A new report “Why Places Matter” proposes to offer practical advice on such matters. Councillors and communities take note.

What the report seems to say is that the vitality of our High Streets is a barometer of the health of our communities. I wholeheartedly agree. But name me a politician or council officer who doesn’t recognise the importance and value of community consultation and involvement? It is now wired into our systems. Community planning in Scotland is so well-embedded that it too has its own effective bureaucracy, timelines and matrices and a small cohort of slick and articulate community animateurs. I’d be surprised if any right thinking person would say anything bad about this report though. An excellent piece of work it is, as far as it goes.

What I question is how effective such reports actually are at seriously changing the debate about issues such as neighbourhood planning and resident involvement. There isn’t one – as the people with power ain’t really ready to cede it on the one hand. How do you empower communities without giving them power? Community Councils are insufficiently empowered and hopelessly ill-resourced to do the job. Anyway CCs merely act as a sounding board role, with no statutory powers. Other wheezes such as passing assets into quasi direct control of communities through ownership. Yet this doesn’t really address the democratic deficit, as the structures created are even less accountable and not subject to the sort of scrutiny that public bodies are. To my mind there’s a major deficit in the skills and capacities department – people are often lacking technical skills required to design high quality solutions which, combined with an endemic lack of time, means that only weakly designed solutions get done by the community (e.g. ugly planting schemes that die) with the usual suspects getting involved (as these are the only ones with any time).

So what does the report have to say about people and place. A catchy suite of myth busting captions:

  • Community participation is a barrier to creating better places
  • We don’t have to worry about the past, we want something new
  • We can’t please everyone
  • You have to go to the gym to get fit
  • 20 mph is not enforceable
  • Parking is the answer to local high streets regeneration
  • Public gardens and parks are a luxury

Yes I agree, kind of. Decision makers are stubbornly wedded to whole load of myths, but my list is longer still. My favourite pet hate is conducting a consultation to pilot something new, which isn’t really new, but is new to the officials that have never done it before. This is a well known delaying tactic which is used by the authorities to buy time, to collect evidence why they should not do something while allowing opposition to a proposal to organise itself and line up their arguments against.

But what decision makers lack (foresight and imagination) is not necessarily to be found in communities, who if left to their own devices would just as likely reinforce more of the bads of the past – as they don’t necessarily know any better and are anyway limited by their frame / experience. 

What is needed is more radical thinking, radical experimentation and radical action, not clutching at half baked notions that we can really satisfy everyone (ideologically held differences are really difficult to reconcile, let’s face it) and rubber stamping with tokenistic consultation or so-called participation.

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passionate about the new and the old, but only if it is any good